Smotrich demands justice or education portfolio, rejecting other cabinet posts

Smotrich demands justice or education portfolio, rejecting other cabinet posts

Amid coalition talks, senior far-right MK says he ‘wouldn’t even consider’ Housing Ministry, which Netanyahu reportedly planned to offer

Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz (R) and MK Bezalel Smotrich are greeted by supporters at the party headquarters, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)
Union of Right-Wing Parties leader Rafi Peretz (R) and MK Bezalel Smotrich are greeted by supporters at the party headquarters, April 9, 2019. (Flash90)

Firebrand MK Bezalel Smotrich of the Union of Right-Wing Parties demanded the justice or education portfolio as part of ongoing coalition talks on Sunday, dismissing the idea of accepting another cabinet post.

“Our demand was and remains the justice and education ministries,” Smotrich told Kan public radio.

Asked if his party would outright refuse to join a governing coalition if was not offered those ministries, Smotrich said he “didn’t want to use those kinds of terms.”

It was not clear in the interview if Smotrich was demanding both portfolios or if his party would settle for just one of them.

President Reuven Rivlin (right) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the president’s residence in Jerusalem on April 17, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began a series of negotiations to put together a coalition government for his fifth term in office. The key Justice Ministry, which works closely with the courts and state attorneys, has taken on additional significance in the formation of the next government as Netanyahu faces potential indictments in three separate corruption cases.

Last Wednesday, Hebrew media reports indicated that Netanyahu was leaning toward appointing either Tourism Minister Yariv Levin from his Likud party or Smotrich, number two on the URWP list, for justice minister. Channel 12 reported that “it was almost certain” Netanyahu would choose one of the two men.

Both Levin and Smotrich have expressed support for clamping down on the Supreme Court and removing its ability to act as a check on the legislature — by denying it the right to strike down Knesset laws.

Smotrich has also said he would seek to enact immunity legislation that would protect the prime minister from indictment.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

In recent days, however, it was rumored that Likud was leaning toward Levin for the post, and that Netanyahu would instead offer Smotrich — a strong proponent of building West Bank settlements — the position of construction and housing minister.

In his radio interview on Sunday, Smotrich said he “wouldn’t even consider the Construction [Ministry]. Education and justice need to be ours.”

“Likud didn’t love having Ayelet Shaked as justice minister, at least not at first. Later, I think they loved her a lot. Maybe they won’t love me at first either, but after a few years in which we make some significant changes, I’m sure they’ll love me too,” he said.

Throughout the interview, Smotrich alternated between saying that his party was demanding both portfolios and saying it was demanding only one of them.

He indicated that he was also willing to accept the position of education minister, currently held by Naftali Bennett, whose New Right party failed to cross the electoral threshold.

“I don’t know if Netanyahu dreams of me being education minister. But Shulamit Aloni (of the left-wing Meretz party) was education minister, so I can be too. If Meretz MKs were education ministers, I can too. I’m much closer to the national consensus today than Meretz was then,” Smotrich said.

Rafi Peretz addresses supporters at the URWP election results party in Kfar Maccabiah on April 9, 2019. (Nachshon Pillipson)

The leader of the URWP list, Rafi Peretz, who previously served as the chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, appeared to be a more natural fit for the position of education minister if it were offered to the party, making it unclear if Smotrich was indeed expecting the party to receive both portfolios.

On Wednesday, President Reuven Rivlin officially tasked Netanyahu with assembling a coalition to govern the 21st Knesset with a plea to Israel’s leader to soothe social divides after a combative election campaign.

Netanyahu will have 28 days to form a government, with the possibility of a two-week extension at the discretion of the president.

Netanyahu’s most likely option is a 65-seat coalition of right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties comprising Likud (35 seats), Shas (8), United Torah Judaism (8), Union of Right-Wing Parties (5), Yisrael Beytenu (5) and Kulanu (4).

Negotiations are likely to be fierce, with all those parties, barring Kulanu, indispensable for a majority in the 120-seat Knesset.

Speculation has swirled that Netanyahu may use his newfound political strength to advance legislation that would grant him immunity from prosecution as long as he remains prime minister, or seek to utilize existing immunity provisions for the same purpose. He has been reported to be considering conditioning entry to his new government on potential support for an immunity move or for a so-called French Law that would shelter a sitting prime minister from prosecution. Netanyahu has publicly given mixed signals about whether he will seek such legislation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shakes hands with UTJ’s Meir Porush in the Knesset, on April 29, 2015, after the two parties signed a coalition agreement. To Netanyahu’s right is UTJ leader Yaakov Litzman. (Courtesy, Likud Party)

Netanyahu is a suspect in three criminal probes, known as cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, in which investigators have recommended graft indictments. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to indict Netanyahu in all three cases, pending a hearing.

Smotrich, a co-founder of the right-wing NGO Regavim, which targets illegal construction by non-Jews in Israel and the West Bank, entered the Knesset in 2015 and quickly became known for his far-right views and controversial remarks, particularly  about women, members of the LGBT community and Arabs.

During his four years in the Knesset, he has made headlines for encouraging draft-dodging in protest of the IDF’s “radical feminist” agenda, for comparing the evacuation of an illegal settlement outpost to a “brutal rape,” and for claiming that “illiterate” Arabs are only granted university admission thanks to affirmative action. He has also called himself a “proud homophobe,” has called for segregated Jewish-Arab maternity wards in hospitals, and in the past was involved in organizing an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem in response to the city’s annual Gay Pride parade, in which farm animals were marched alongside the annual LGBT event.

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